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Title Work

Title No: 9583

Title: Interview with Frank Marshall Davis

Medium: Moving Image

Original Medium: Video

Date: 1987 (Created)

Original Summary:
Interview conducted in Hawaii with Frank Marshall Davis for a planned episode of the Hawaii Public Television series "Rice & Roses."   While the program was never completed due to the death of Mr. Davis, portions of the interview were aired in a tribute program on  Hawaii Public TV in 1988.

Tape 1

Frank Marshall Davis reads two of his poems: "Mojo Mike's Beer Garden" and "Frank Marshall Davis - Writer."

Davis answers questions about the tone of his poetry, his audience and purpose.  He describes himself as a social realist as well as a protest writer.

Tape 2

Frank Marshall Davis recalls his childhood in Arkansas City, Kansas.  He discovered the public library at age 8 and read "Les Miserables."

He began writing as a student at Kansas State and became known as "the writer who looked like a prizefighter."

Davis first arrived in Chicago in 1927 and was struck by the "busy-ness" of the place.  It was the Prohibition Era and he rememembers that during his first visit to a speakeasy, a police officer came in only to ask for a drink himself.

Davis also talks about the jazz scene and venues like the Vendome and Metropolitan theatres as well as the Savoy Ballroom.  He recalls encounters with Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton.  He became friends with the prizefighter Jack Johnson.

Davis is questioned about the influence of jazz on his poetry.  He replies that he liked the free expressions of free verse.  He believes that poetry and jazz are intertwined.

Tape 3

Davis reads his poem "Louis Armstrong."

Davis is asked about the allusions to black history in his poems.  He replies that he learned little of black history in high school. "It was immediately assumed that all that had happened was caucasian."

He also had little exposure to the black press although he talks about the Topeka Plain Dealer and it's editor, Nick Childs.  Childs had a running battle with Ernest Lindley, Chancellor of the University of Kansas, over Lindley's views on the primacy of whites and the intellectual aptitude of blacks.

Davis' exposure to the African-American press came when he arrived in Chicago.  He recalls that in those days the biggest papers where the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American.

In 1930, while he was working at the Gary Indiana American, W.A. Scott hired Davis to be editor of the Atlanta Daily World.

Tape 4

Frank Marshall Davis continues to speak about his experiences as editor of the Atlanta Daily World and the problems of running a daily newspaper during the Depression.

He recalls that he made $35 a week as editor of the World while editors at some of the Hearst papers made little more than $15-$20 a week.

Davis returned to Chicago in 1934 to take over the Associated Negro Press.  At that time, he read about 35 papers a day and his memory was sharp.

When asked what was happening to black people during this time, Davis remembers the Scottsboro Boys and the case of Angelo Herndon, an African-American communist organizer who was imprisoned for insurrection in Atlanta in 1932.

Davis believes his poetry was based on these experiences,on "things that usually happened to blacks."  He reads his poem "Christ is a Dixie Nigger." He felt that it was his duty "to step on sore toes in this matter of race."

Davis also recalls conflicts with W.A. Scott, publisher of the Atlanta Daily World as well as other members of the black community over his willingness to confront race relations head on.

Tape 5

Frank Marshall Davis reads two poems: "To a Young Man" and "Giles Johnson, Ph.D," about a highly educated African-American who died of starvation.

This leads to a discussion of the plight of educated blacks during the Depression. Many porters had college degrees.  He recalls that Claude Barnett, founder of the Associated Negro Press, a Tuskegee graduate, made a living selling images of the Black Madonna to the Polish community in Chicago.

Davis is questioned about life in Prohibition-Era Chicago and the place of African-Americans in the underworld.  According to Davis, the policy market (numbers racket)was controlled by 
blacks while booze, bars and prostitution were controlled by organized crime.

Davis remembers his own brush with the mob as well as the FBI while covering a corruption case for the Gary Indiana American in 1929.  An African-American alderman, A.B. Whitlock, served as a source in his reporting.  The FBI threatened Davis with a subpoena and the mob threatened his life.  Davis put out a story that he was taking a job in Philadelphia while he actually moved to Manhattan, Kansas.

Tape 6

Davis speaks about his aquaintance with Harry Bridges of the International Longhsore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). This arose through his involvement with the progressive Abraham Lincoln School.  Through various functions sponsored by the school, he also met the folk singer Leadbelly, and the actor, singer, lawyer and activist Paul Robeson, who influenced Davis to come to Hawaii.

Davis is queried about differences between life in Hawaii and the mainland.  Davis responds that in Hawaii he felt he had some dignity. On the mainland, he always felt inferior.  Nevertheless, there were places in Hawaii where blacks were not welcome.

To the charge that he was running away from problems on the continental US, Davis responds that people didn't understand there were problems in Hawaii.

Davis also recalls the Dock workers strike of 1949 and continued encounters with the FBI.

Tape 7

Davis talks about an appearance before a committee headed by Sen. James O. Eastland (D-MS) in 1957.  Davis had prepared a statement but was cut off when Eastland realized he would be a hostile witness.

Davis is asked about his lifelong committment to the struggle for racial and economic justice and their place in his poetry.  He replies that it was not until 1943 that he decided to join with others.  He discovered that "I couldn't get anywhere by myself."

Davis believes his earlier poems (he mentions "47th Street," "Chicago Congo," and "American Negro") are more personal and centered on racial justice.  He sees himself gradually becoming more proletarian.

He talks about the difference between the African-American writers of Chicago and the New Negro Renaissance (Harlem Renaissance) in New York.  He calls Chicago a "big, bragging bully of a town" while the East was "so genteel" and "too sophisticated, polished."

He describes Langston Hughes as a "close personal friend." While Hughes admired Davis' writing style, he also found it "too polemical."  Davis disagrees with that view.

He recalls that Melville Hershkovits, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and founder of the nation's first African-American studies program, liked to invite Davis to an annual discussion on race because Davis' views were "hardboiled" as opposed to academic.

Tape 8

Camera takes still shots of several photographs.

Davis shows and discussses a number of photographs which he took during the 1930's and 40's, including shots of Chicago docks, streets, rail yards as well as portraits.  He reveals that he was also president of a local photography club, the Lens Camera Club of Chicago.

He discusses a 1947 portrait of himself saying "I always looked mean."

Davis also talks about meeting writer Richard Wright in 1935,
how the coming of World War II changed the life of African-Americans and black support for Roosevelt despite being a Democrat ("most were bigots").

Tape 9

Davis displays a framed photograph of Paul Robeson who Davis describes as "one of the most influential men in the entire world."  Robeson was also a supporter of the ILWU and encouraged Davis in plans to move to Hawaii.

He also describes Robeson as one of the two African-American celebrities of the era (the other being Joe Louis) for whom Davis was sometimes mistaken.  He also talks about looking like Nolle Smith Sr. and Jr., prominent African-Americans in Hawaii.

Davis is asked if he ever experienced discrimination in Hawaii. He replies that he found it "personally advantageous."
Because of his political leanings, he felt that many people, including the haoles (descendants of the first Caucasian settlers) were on his side.

He remembers the 9-month long strike by the ILWU against the Big Five sugar companies.  His wife picketed with the ILWU.

Davis also displays a poster for the Chicago Star, an inter-racial labor weekly he started with a Jewish newspaperman named Hirsch.

He briefly talks about an editorial he wrote during the Massie Case, in which a prominent socialite, Thalia Massie, was alllegedly assaulted and raped by five Hawaiian natives.

Davis states that the major reason for the existence of the black press was to counter the misinformation of the white press.  He also credits a strong black press for strengthening the position of African-American servicemen and opening opportunities in the Navy, Air Force and Marines during World War II.

Tape 10

Davis continues to speak about the pressure brought by African-American editors on the War Department over segregation and the role of blacks in the military.

Although he was unable to attend a December 8, 1941, meeting of black editors and publishers with Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, Davis advised his publisher, Claude Barnett, to tell Marshall that it was not right that the fight against Nazism should be fought by two armies instead of one.  At the very least, he advised, the Army should allow the creation of a volunteer force.

General Marshall told the editors that the military was not constituted to make social changes or change social attitudes.

According to Davis, these arguments had little effect until the Battle of the Bulge, when a shortage of infantry forced the Army to shift policy and permit black servicemen to train and serve in combat units.

Davis also felt it was his duty to publish reports about race riots and the mistreatment of African-American servicemen w in or out of uniform, on or off base.  He believes the root of the problem was the desire of Southern officers and troops to maintain their superior status.

Davis also speaks briefly about the status of African-Americans in trade unions.  Finally, he states his belief that the struggle is not over.

Countries of Origin: U.S.A.

Production CompanyCenter for Labor Education & Research
DirectorChong, Joy
InterviewerConybeare, Chris
ProducerConybeare, Chris
IntervieweeDavis, Frank Marshall
InterviewerTakara, Kathryn

The program was never completed because Davis died during production.

Reference Materials x2


Items x5

9583-1Video Tape : U-matic 
9583-2Digital : Video/quicktime 
9583-3Digital : Video/dvcpro 50 
9583-4Digital : Video/mpeg 
9583-6Disc : DVD 

Contained By x1

Title NoTitle
9712Frank Marshall Davis Collection